This chapter examines the engagement between government and the public over deterrence between the deployment of Trident in 1995 and the 2021 Integrated Review. It suggests that several technical factors influence system choices and decisions, and form most of the public discourse. Engagement on ethical elements; the issue of why Britain needs a nuclear deterrent; and the moral implications of nuclear deterrence and nuclear war (the two are not synonymous) has been avoided by successive governments. Ethical elements are always considered, agonised over, privately and in camera, but not in public nor on the record. To consider the nature of current British and NATO nuclear deterrence theory and strategy clarifies the difference between 1980 – when NATO nuclear deterrence entailed being prepared to fight and win a nuclear war – and 2021 – when NATO nuclear deterrence entails being prepared to use nuclear weapons to deter war – and what that means strategically and ethically. This chapter addresses how nuclear deterrence really works, despite anodyne technical language. No-one considers nuclear war a moral good, but debate should be about deterrence, not war. At present, much public discourse equates nuclear deterrence to nuclear war, and debate often starts from this misunderstanding.
This book addresses why successive British governments have struggled to sustain public discourse on nuclear weapons policy and strategy. This reflects aversion to debate the conditional willingness to threaten non-combatants, dating back to debates during the First and Second World Wars. Whilst every government since 1915 has been prepared to exploit such strategies, they have been averse to acknowledging them. This is as true of 21st-century nuclear deterrence as it was of strategic bombing in the Second World War. This book explores modern and historical deterrence strategy, the ethics of nuclear deterrence, the public debate about strategic bombing and nuclear deterrence, the effects on public discourse of modern media and the relationship between these elements. In war, government faces a paradox demanding consequentialist judgement, which is difficult for it to portray in public, especially through modern media. Governments therefore avoid the issue and have occasionally lied to the public. This inability to articulate the strategic case for the nuclear deterrent undermines its coherence and increases the risk that decisions on its future may be taken without understanding the strategic imperatives, based on discussions of cost and capability within debate parameters dictated by a vocal minority.
This chapter considers the challenging relationship between contemporary ‘rights-based’ ethical concepts and the more consequentialist ‘just war’ ethics that dominate government policy. The just war tradition evolves constantly. Only analysis of the Second World War has enabled ethicists to explain concepts such as ‘double effect’, ‘supreme emergency’ and ‘dirty hands’ in the terms which are understood today and fundamental to modern conflict. However, many contemporary philosophers consider ethics not in terms of balancing national security with the use of force, but regard individual rights as unassailable, transcending the consequentialism of realist politics, and aspire to normatise international relations. To provide context, two short case studies into ways governments have handled other complex technological and ethically challenging areas are considered: human embryology and fertilisation (the 1982 Warnock Inquiry), and genetic modification of crops (the 2003 public consultation). Whilst experts routinely consider the relationship between likelihood and consequence, such balanced views are not simple for the media to present, and ‘risk’ and ‘expert advice’ can prompt distorted scrutiny of complex ethical issues. While anti-nuclear opposition can afford selective, absolutist positions, governments must adopt consequentialist morality to provide for national defence, which is difficult to portray in public, particularly through modern media.
This chapter identifies the closely symbiotic relationship between strategy and technology, and the imperatives that each placed upon the other; critical factors for a state developing a nuclear capability on a shoestring (and little understood – then or now). Attlee’s near-obsessive secrecy impacted on both development and general understanding, and left a persistent legacy for the handling of nuclear deterrent policy within government, Parliament and in public. Both Attlee and Churchill were concerned about the moral implications of atomic weapons, but completely convinced they were necessary for Britain to retain her position and influence after the war. Neither chose to share this logic widely within Cabinet, let alone in public. Successive governments convened small, secret Cabinet committees to oversee major policy decisions, and completely ignored nascent anti-nuclear groups. Between 1964 and 1979 two Labour governments abrogated manifesto commitments to reduce/cancel nuclear commitments; Wilson’s introduced Polaris into service and Callaghan’s, faced with obsolescence of Polaris, continued updates and studied a replacement, despite having ‘renounced any intention of moving towards … a successor to’ Polaris. Both governments used carefully worded public and Parliamentary statements to convey apparent compliance with manifesto commitments despite doing almost the opposite, so naturally avoided public exploration of policy.
This chapter considers the evolution of the mindset behind the strategic bombing campaign of the Second World War. Drawing on Baldwin’s famous 1932 dictum ‘the bomber will always get through’, it considers the evolution of political recognition that ‘… no power on earth … can protect [citizens] from being bombed …’ and traces this back to the experiences of First World War Zeppelin and Gotha bombing raids on London. In responding to them, the British government expressed aversion to reprisals against German towns and cities, but did retaliate surreptitiously. Early air power theorists (and fiction and cinema) envisaged wars dominated by strategic bombing of cities, factories and populations, rather than trench warfare. The relative merits of strategic bombing (of civilians and cities) and ‘traditional’ warfare (against armies and navies) dominated UK strategic debate between the wars, and influenced the evolution of Royal Air Force doctrine, but the Second World War provided the strategic impetus to develop technology to realise these capabilities. By 1943 the UK and USA had refined the ability to wield the destructive power of bombing foreshadowed during the Spanish Civil and Sino-Japanese wars in the 1930s.
There was protracted and serious discussion within the British War Cabinet and RAF high command about the strategic bombing campaign and its legitimacy, a discussion which continues to this day. This chapter considers the impact of concerns about public opinion on that discussion and resulting strategy; it concludes that there was a concerted effort to maximise damage to areas of German cities, including industrial and residential areas, but that the public presentation of this policy was adapted to appear to show an aspiration to employ precision bombing against industrial facilities only, which must cause unavoidable casualties amongst non-combatants. This ambivalent position, a distinct aversion to public acknowledgement of the willingness to inflict non-combatant casualties, was inherited by those responsible for the early development of British nuclear strategy.
This book is derived from thirty years of service in the Royal Navy submarine service, much of it in the nuclear deterrent mission. The research and argument described here is not the result of that experience directly, but a reaction to the inability of the Ministry of Defence and Royal Navy hierarchy to describe to me, the commanding officer of a Trident submarine, what the official rationale and justification for the nuclear deterrent is. I have always been content that I can justify the mission to myself, but never content that I could do so in terms of which the UK government would approve. The book considers concepts like ‘the public’ and ‘the media’ but does not explore them in detail except where they impinge on government thinking about the core issues, and the chapters centred on the lessons derived from the First and Second World Wars do not seek to produce a definitive version of the outcomes, simply to understand the ethical debates and pressures that were considered important at the time, and the lessons that were therefore carried forward into the nuclear deterrent strategy and policy.
This torrid period saw the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament re-emerge as part of a pan-European protest against NATO nuclear weapons, NATO’s dual track response to the deployment of SS20 and the near-simultaneous decision to replace Polaris with Trident. Many technical factors affecting the Polaris decision remained relevant, including the need to use an American system because the R&D costs of a British system would be prohibitive. Mrs Thatcher’s government persisted in treating decisions about NATO nuclear posture and the national nuclear deterrent as separate, missing the point that they were indivisible in public perception. The anti-nuclear opposition mounted coherent campaigns locally and nationally, and the government did not attempt to engage for three years – by which time the debate’s parameters had been set by CND and others. Throughout, ministers’ understanding of the discourse was woeful, with the Press Office failing to grasp the importance, or the complexity, of the issue until a small Conservative Party committee began work on the 1983 election manifesto. This committee engaged with the Cabinet Office and the MOD, and government took an aggressive stance, aiming to undermine the credibility of anti-nuclear lobbies by suggesting their leadership was significantly influenced by the USSR.
An ex-Trident submarine captain considers the evolution of UK nuclear deterrence policy and the implications of a previously unacknowledged, enduring aversion to military strategies that threaten civilian casualties. This book draws on extensive archival research to provide a uniquely concise synthesis of factors affecting British nuclear policy decision-making, and draws parallels between government debates about reprisals for First World War Zeppelin raids on London, the strategic bombing raids of the Second World War and the development of the nuclear deterrent to continuous at-sea deterrence, through the end of the Cold War and the announcement of the Dreadnought programme. It develops the idea that, in a supreme emergency, a breach of otherwise inviolable moral rules might be excused, but never justified, in order to prevent a greater moral catastrophe; and it explores the related ethical concept of dirty hands – when a moral actor faces a choice between two inevitable actions, mutually exclusive but both reprehensible. It concludes that, amongst all the technical factors, government aversion to be seen to condone civilian casualties has inhibited government engagement with the public on deterrence strategy since 1915 and, uniquely among nuclear weapon states, successive British governments have been coy about discussing nuclear deterrence policy publicly because they feared to expose the complexity of the moral reasoning behind the policy, a reticence exacerbated by the tendency of policy and media investigation to be reduced to simplistic soundbites.
This chapter considers the BBC decision not to broadcast The War Game; it is based on an interview with the director. The core message of The War Game, a 1965 BBC docu-drama on the aftermath of a nuclear attack on a Kent town, echoed a 1954 top secret Cabinet Office report that civil defence contingencies were completely inadequate. The film was withdrawn prior to transmission after the BBC consulted the Cabinet Office and the Ministry of Defence. Peter Watkins (the director) resigned from the BBC in protest, and questions were raised in Parliament and in the media, leading to extensive public debate, in which an unofficial pro-government case was made by proxies. The documentary was given a limited cinematic release, winning the 1966 Venice Film Festival Award for best documentary, and the 1967 best documentary Oscar. The BBC screened it in 1985. The director insists still that the film was suppressed because of its political impact. Whatever the BBC decided, it decided only after extensive consultation with government officials, which both denied publicly. The withdrawal of The War Game highlighted the almost total government public silence on nuclear weapons, but even then the government did not participate in public discussion.